“Youth can change the future of education in India”

Milind Nagda, an ex-Teach For India fellow is convinced that youngsters are the answer to ending education inequity in India.

Education in India has recently been a much discussed subject. RTE and related developments have only highlighted the lacunae and loopholes in the system. What are the core issues we are looking at?

So far we have only been focusing on inputs. The RTE Act itself is centered around inputs like infrastructure, number of teachers, mid-day meals and several other enablers to get children to come to school. Earlier, the biggest challenge was infrastructure. That has been addressed partially. Then enrolment became a huge matter of concern: schools were functioning, but the children were all outside. Giving due credit to schemes like SSA, enrolment is now more than 90%.

It is hence time we started talking about outcomes. Are the students learning well? Are we effectively assessing the impact of education? My belief is that if we focus on the outcomes, inputs have to and will follow.

Teach For India fellows with their students. Pic: Milind

Teach For India fellows with their students. Pic: Milind

Do Government schools have the wherewithal to deliver quality education?

We will just have to force that. Though it is definitely not the same, I would take the example of DoorDarshan to illustrate my point. At one point of time, DoorDarshan ruled. With the entry of satellite television, they got relegated to the bottom rung. I know a lot of us don’t, but if you catch the occasional program on DD, you will notice that they have worked a lot on the viewer experience. With the entry of high quality options and alternatives, they have been forced to look within and improve their programs. The same is starting to happen in Govt. schools.

Govt. schools need a huge amount of qualitative input in order to get children to stay on in school, isn’t it?

I believe in the concept of building model classrooms as I have seen it happen. Put some of the country’s youngest and brightest minds to the task. Let them come up with ideas, test it out on the children, show results and identify best practices. Transformation has to occur inside the school with the change agent being the classroom itself.

Second, focus on the Principals and the teachers. We are a country where we invest poorly in the professional development of the teachers and school leaders. An education program to train school administrators doesn’t even exist. That’s where we need to start to build capacity. Transform a teacher, and you set up a model classroom. Transform the Principal, and you can set up a whole model school!

Milind playing Santa at his school. Pic: Milind

Milind playing Santa at his school. Pic: Milind

Next, make education so interesting that the child would hate to leave the classroom. I have had what the authorities would call the “slowest learners” pick up and speak English in a matter of 1 year. Initially, children had to be dragged into classrooms. Today, my kids love to come to school, they all sit silently and listen in the classes. The process of change is painful and long drawn, but once it starts to happen, everybody transforms – from the Principal to the peon.

A lot of models are very effective when applied to 100 children, but fail when applied to 100,000. How is this concept of model classrooms going to scale?

As we speak, “all” the NGOs working on education in Mumbai are partnering with the MGCM in order to improve the lot of Govt. schools. None of us in the development sector have the kind of finances or scale to make education happen for India, only the Govt. does.

Youth across the country need to be involved in order to bring in long term change. Hold forums, galvanize people. We need to spend time empowering communities so that they can then become agents of change in their localities. This may sound idealistic, but so did people say of Gandhiji. We at TFI have aptly named our movement to end education inequity as India’s second freedom struggle.

The Teach For India first batch of fellows. Pic: Milind

The Teach For India first batch of fellows. Pic: Milind

You talked about gathering some of the brightest minds. How? What will get them to believe in the vision and work for education in India?

2000 people applied to the Teach For India program in the first year – some of the best employees at corporates, investment bankers, top rankers at educational institutes – they all applied for an opportunity to teach in a low income school for 2 years, at a very modest salary. In a flourishing capitalist economy, that says a lot about how the youth of today think. I believe that the yearning to bring in change has taken precedence over huge pay packets. Youth from all over the world are applying for intensive programs like the Gandhi Fellowships and Indicorps.

How do you see this whole partnering with the Govt. machinery working out?

From my experience with TFA and how we are now working with the Corporation, I have a few suggestions.

1. Assessment. We can train the teachers on assessment techniques. Today, the education system says “a child in 3rd Std should read this book”. What if the child cannot even read or write simple words? Give the teacher the freedom to teach 1st Std in 3rd Std. Measure progress regularly.
2. Incentives. May sound controversial, but let us say the Govt. gave parents a voucher of Rs. 5000 for your school. It is now upto you to assess gaps and use the money to get people from outside your school to address it. People can help on various counts – from helping teachers prepare progress reports to recruiting teachers, even the Principal. The school is held accountable for the “right” results.

3. Kindergarten. An important part that has been completely left out of the RTE. Help the Govt. start and support pre-schools.

4. Reflections. Train the teachers to be reflect in school – let them watch other teachers teach. Let them reflect on the problems at the end of every day. It’s a good way of identifying gaps and preventing “one size fits all” solutions.

5. Support. Phonics skills, building language acquisition, foundational mathematical content, making learning fun using art and drama, professional development for the teachers and quality feedback mechanisms can go a long way in developing teacher quality.

Has this worked before?

Wendy Kopp, an International Affairs bachelor student from Princeton, proposed the idea of creating a national teachers corps in her thesis 20 years ago. Today, the organisation she created – Teach For America – attracts some of the brightest college graduates wishing to teach in the neediest communities. When Barrack Obama needed to revitalize public schools in America a few years ago, amidst all the education experts, he came to Wendy for help.

TFI is a year old, and we are already collaborating with organisations like Mumbai’s Sarva Shiksha Abhyan and the Mumbai Municipal Corporation. A movement of leaders from among young people who can work together to fight the education inequity is slowly getting built. I think we are getting there, sooner than you think.

Background : Teach For India (TFI) is a movement to eliminate educational inequity and to provide an excellent education to all children. In the last year, TFI placed 87 of the best and brightest young people as full-time teachers in low-income municipal and private schools. For more details visit : http://www.teachforindia.org

Milind can be reached at milind@ieee.org